A human, a grueling hike, a spiritual awakening — the film adaptations of Cheryl Strayed's Wild and Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods have more than a few major themes in common. They both take audiences on both a literal, geographic journey and the narrative, emotional one of any film. Yet they also diverge in a number of key categories that produce two very, very different movies. So how does A Walk in the Woods compare to Wild?
The newer film finds Robert Redford, as Bill Bryson, undertaking the Appalachian Trail with a grizzled old friend who his wife, Emma Thompson, reminds him he actually can't stand. It's a kind of buddy comedy that examines growing old and the three-quarters-life crisis through humor. In contrast, Wild is all straight-faced. Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, the book's author, who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo after a messy divorce and the death of her mother. Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as Strayed, as did Laura Dern for Supporting Actress playing Strayed's mother (she appears in flashbacks as Strayed reflects on how she came to where she is).
So let's go through a few of the key categories that Wild and A Walk in the Woods share, but in which they differ in content, to see exactly how much of a parallel audiences can make between the two films.
1. Cheryl Vs. Bill
This is probably an unfair face-off since it forces us to pick between two of the greats of theater history, albeit of different generations. Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed and essentially carries the film with Dern's support. Her expressiveness while solo on the trail is what makes Wild work. In A Walk in the Woods, Robert Redford has a rare opportunity to show off his comedic chops, though. He, too, proved his ability to carry a film in All Is Lost, the captain-at-sea feature in which Redford is not only the only character — there's also no dialogue.
2. East Meets West
Bryson plans to hike 2,200 miles of Appalachian Trail. But Strayed's hike reaches 2,500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Proportionally, maybe not that much, but I'd imagine those last 300 miles mean a whole lot when you have 2,200 behind you.
3. Who Would Walk 2,000 Miles?
Strayed's character embarks on a long hike to rediscover her roots as a human after a downward spiral precipitated by the death of her mother, her closest friend. She began "dangerously dabbling" with heroin, as she told Vanity Fair, and occasionally cheated on her then-husband. They divorced shortly before she decided to undertake the Pacific Crest Trail. Robert Redford's character Bryson decides to hike the Appalachian Trail for comparatively tame reasons. Frustrated by the mundanity of daily life, he wants to get away from his social surroundings and back to nature. Film-land Bryson is something of a crank, a stereotypical old man who could use a little humor. The humor comes, finally, when he gets on the trail.
4. Who Was Behind The Film?
A Walk in the Woods helmer Ken Kwapis trades in sitcoms, and his previous feature efforts have included He's Just Not That Into You and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. He's all too familiar with the levity of A Walk in the Woods. The director of Wild was similarly selected for his experience in similar character-driven dramas — Jean-Marc Vallée is perhaps best known now for directing Dallas Buyers Club with Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey.
5. Based On A True Story
Bryson is known for his sardonic, occasionally self-deprecating and always humorous takes on pop culture, history, and even memoir. This ambiance comes through in A Walk in the Woods, whose drastically understated title alludes to the kind of comedy to come. Strayed's personal essays and columns for The Rumpus are how she initially made her name, and Wild evidences the kind of first-person narrative that is often challenging to put onto screen. It can feel trite — but the film never does. The behind-the-scenes teams of each film are strikingly different, but ideally tailored to the subject matter.
Pitting Wild against A Walk in the Woods, while relevant on the surface, is not really a fair game. Both films have their merits, but they're so different thematically that it's impossible for one to come out ahead of the other. Two films about the great outdoors, but for different moods, different audiences, and different awards. It's not for nothing that so many awards shows separate the musicals and comedies from the dramas.
Images: Broad Green Pictures (3); Fox Searchlight (3)